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Here is a print created in 1516 AD by the gothic master Albrecht Dürer.  It portrays the familiar theme of Prosperine (Persephone) abducted by Pluto (Hades) the god of the underworld—an event which underpins classical mythology about the changing of the seasons.  The print itself is about the capricious suddenness of change—a subject familiar to any inhabitant of late-medieval/early-modern Germany.

Abduction of Proserpine on a Unicorn (Albrect Dürer, 1516, etching from iron plate)

Dürer was probably the greatest and most prolific of the late gothic artists from Northern Europe.  Over the course of his life (1471 – 1528) he produced countless drawings, etchings, engravings, woodcuts, and paintings.  Although his paintings are phenomenal, Dürer’s greatest contribution to art may have been as a printmaker. Invented in the 1440’s, the printing press was still comparatively new technology during Dürer’s life. However, as is evident in this iron etching, Dürer had already pushed the limits of what printing could do.  He was Europe’s first great mass-artist.

In this scene, Pluto has cruelly grabbed the naked maiden goddess.  Her distress and misery outweigh her nudity and beauty.  Her face is distorted into a horrified mask. Each element of the print combines to create a powerful narrative about the ominous and unstable nature of existence. The floating/dissolving jagdschloss in the background hints at life’s instability. The sinister presence of Pluto dominates the composition.  Although his body is hidden by Proserpine, the predatory mass of arms, hair, legs, and scowl is all too present.

Even in a wholly fantastic scene such as this, the realistic details are overwhelming.  Pluto’s wild hair becomes a part of the bracken and gorse of the savage woods where the abduction is taking place.  The unicorn is neither a horse nor a goat (nor a gentle purveyor of rainbows) but a one-of-a-kind hellbeast which has just galloped up from the Stygian depths.

The only hopeful element of the composition is the sky–where a beautiful mass of clouds which are piled up like clots of cream or a fallen robe hints at a future less dark and violent.

Albrecht of Brandenburg as St. Jerome in his Study (Lucas Cranch the Elder, 1527)

In addition to troubling paintings of severed heads and dark allegories of German society, Lucas Cranach the Elder liked to paint animals.  He painted several splendid pictures of Adam and Eve in a paradise teaming with creatures (including human headed parrots and unicorns) and he also frequently portrayed the bloody business of large scale stag-hunts by the aristocracy.  One of my favorite of Cranach’s animal paintings is the one above titled, which was completed in 1527.  A generous supporter of the arts (and personal friend of Erasmus), Albrecht was the Elector and Archbishop of Mainz.  Ironically, to secure this position, Albrecht had taken out an immense loan “to discharge the expenses of his elevation.”  In order to pay this money back he obtained permission from Pope Leo X to sell indulgences.  The agent Albrecht utilized to sell these indulgences, John Tetzel, was so odious and grasping that Luther wrote his 95 theses partly as a direct response to Tetzel. Albrecht was the first to notify the papacy of Luther’s theses (which he suspected might be heretical).

Although dressed as a 16th century cardinal, Albrecht is affecting the style and symbols of Saint Jerome, the 4th century hermit and scholar who had translated the bible into Latin.  Jerome was frequently painted with a tame lion due to an ahistorical medieval legend about how he had removed a thorn from a marauding lion’s paw (and thus gained the creature’s friendship).  Cranach expands on this iconography to fill the painting with animals including not just a pensive lion, but also an industrious beaver, a pheasant, a rabbit, and a stag.  In gothic iconography, the stag represented Christ and here we see a handsome stag beneath a crucifix apparently speaking to Jerome.  The ecclesiastical contemplation and tame animals of the foreground are contrasted starkly with the more realistic background, where aristocratic hunters ride back to their great hall with their hounds while real stags joust with their horns in the forest.

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